As the number of gold medals keeps growing larger around the neck of Rayron Gracie, so too do the comparisons between the soft-spoken Brazilian jiu-jitsu prodigy and the BJJ legacy left by his larger-than-life father.
Based on pedigree, brashness would be expected to flow thick through the veins of the 19-year-old only son of the late Ryan Gracie, considered by many to be the original bad boy of mixed martial arts. However, Rayron is quietly and humbly digging down and working even harder to fulfill his family BJJ legacy.
Rayron (pronounced Hi-Ron), came to New York six years ago. The intent, as he originally planned, was not to follow in his father’s BJJ footsteps, but to better his English skills before returning home to Brazil. Upon arrival, he inherited a vast academy of BJJ educators more expansive than most Ivy League institutions—a Gracie family full of world-class champions, including his uncle, legendary jiu-jitsu icon Renzo Gracie (Ryan’s brother).
His temporary stay has now become a long-term success story. As a purple belt, Rayron earned his first world championship a year ago. But as a sport that requires dedication, practice, and patience, and perhaps most important, humility, finding and fixing the flaws become most paramount—even if it’s only Rayron only noticing the weakness. To help build up his off-the-mat intangibles—namely strength and recovery—he’s enlisted a team of elite strength coaches and physical therapists to help fill the gaps he can’t fix on the mat.
His success, however, takes a backseat to maintaining a cosmic connection with his father, who he lost more than 13 years ago. Since the age of 6, Rayron has made been writing letters to his father a consistent ritual. The healing chronicled in the recently released documentary “Letters to My Father,” reveals his experiences growing up without his father through these letters he’s written to his father.
“I don’t have any brothers, so he was the only one who I’ve ever really looked up to,” Rayron says. “He was my hero. And once he passed away, I had questions and wanted to find the answers. So I started writing letters as a kid, to somehow continue to communicate with him.”
SON OF A SUPERSTAR
While the United States wasn’t finally beginning to welcome MMA into its mainstream, Ryan Gracie was already a rock star in Japan during the early 2000s. Both polarizing and popular, he was an antihero fan favorite for both his ferocity in the cage and bombastic aggression behind the mike in that nation’s PRIDE organization, MMA’s precursor to today’s worldwide reign of the UFC.
In his shortened career, he scored two knockouts and a pair of armbar submissions in compiling a modest 5-2 record. But his over-the-top verbal assaults thrown at Japanese fight legends Kazushi Sakuraba and Hidehiko Yoshida, at the time more suited for WWE, made him beloved in Japan and helped paved the road for MMA stars to embrace and market their notoriety today, such as former UFC champion Conor McGregor.
Outside the cage, controversial and troubled would best describe Ryan. But to Rayron, he was simply Dad, a human security blanket who would toss his child on his shoulders, would take him swimming or to the park, or bring him to his MMA academy in Brazil, where he would admire his father from afar.
On the evening of Dec. 15, 2007, Ryan was found dead in a Sao Paolo jail cell, reportedly due to an over-prescription of medication prescribed by his psychiatrist in order to calm him following an arrest. His death came just over a week after Rayron celebrated his sixth birthday.
“He was the only person I really looked up to,” Rayron says. “And once he passed away, I had questions, and as a child I needed answers…I really didn’t know what death was at that time. So I started writing these letters as a kid, to somehow communicate with him.”
As he described in the Allen Alcantara-produced doc, he communicated with his father almost daily. Upon the hundreds of letters that he has kept, backed up, and secured contain passages and poetry based on every type of emotion—“Where are you?” “When are you coming back?” “I had a good day at practice”—that can flow through the mind of a child, adolescent, and gold medalist.
“I actually had quite a few epiphanies while I would write these,” Rayron says. “It actually felt like I was talking to my dad. Not just my dad, but even communicating with the happy little kid who was having fun with his day. It’s an amazing way to deal with these types of feelings you’re having.”
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